MISSION — Columbus school district Superintendent Brian Smith has spent the week hauling furniture out of classrooms to make more space for social distancing as students prepare to return next week after a
five-month COVID-19-imposed break.
“It is almost like you are preparing for war,” Smith said. “And there is so much that can go wrong and so many unknowns.”
His 950-student district is among several dozen mostly rural Kansas school systems to resume classes next week after a handful tested the waters this week.
Gov. Laura Kelly sought to delay the reopening of the state’s K-12 schools for nearly a month, until after Labor Day, because of a resurgence in reported coronavirus cases. But the Republican-controlled State Board of Education blocked the plan last month, leaving the start of fall classes to 286 locally elected school boards.
Only about 15% of the state’s districts decided to follow Kelly’s delayed-start advice. They include some of the state’s largest districts, such as Shawnee Mission, Wichita, Lawrence and Topeka. The Wichita district announced Thursday that teachers at four schools had tested positive, highlighting the challenges of controlling the virus.
Statewide, the number of infections rose by 1,338 from Wednesday to Friday, for a total of 33,885. COVID-19-related deaths increased by seven to 402. Meanwhile, the positive rate on tests for those two days approached 16%, and the overall positive rate for the pandemic inched up again to 9.9%. The number of infections is believed to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and experts believe people can have the virus without feeling sick.
Students in the Chetopa-St. Paul district also are headed back to school on Monday. Superintendent Craig Bagshaw said a major concern is where students are at academically after being out of school for so long.
“It will be bad,” Bagshaw said, adding that he is planning to offer summer school next year for students who need it.
In Lane County, which has recorded just six cases, the 250 students in the Dighton district headed back to class Friday, making it among the first in the state to do so.
“Your concerns about the upcoming year ebbs and flows, because as leaders you are expected to have certainty and there is no certainty,” said Superintendent Kelly Arnberger, who has added temperature checks and staggered movement in the hallways. “That is anxiety producing.”
As staff works out the kinks, the district is taking next Friday off to assess what worked and what didn’t. “We are small enough,” Arnberger said, “that we can pivot pretty quickly if we need to.”
Although the first districts to reopen are offering virtual instruction options, there are few takers. Among 220 students in the Deerfield district, only one has signed up for remote learning as classes prepare to resume Monday, said Superintendent Tyson Eslinger.
He said families “want their kids back in school” and that the district has a built-in advantage because of the small number of cases in the community. Still, the district is training staff to be able to livestream classes and upload materials to the internet so instruction can seamlessly move online if needed.
This is Eslinger’s first year as a superintendent. But he notes that this year “everyone is a first-year superintendent because no one has done it during a global pandemic.”
In the Ashland school district, which has about 200 students, the student council made a video to prepare students for the unusual return to school on Monday. The school’s cawing Blue Jay mascot makes several appearances in a mask as students explain the hand sanitizer, temperature check and bathroom rules.
“It’s a little bittersweet because we are happy they’re back,” said Paula Rice, who is the principal of the district’s junior and senior high school, “but there are so many safety protocols and changes.”
Masks are required in some districts but not in others. Kelly had sought to require that staff and students wear them, but Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said he believes both counties and local school districts can exempt themselves.
“We had a big group of parents who would have pulled their kids out of school if they were forced to wear masks,” said Smith, whose Columbus district has added clear dividers to desks called sneeze guards and germicidal ultraviolet light technology to its ventilation system. Teachers are being told to keep windows open.
Despite the challenges, Smith wants the students back. He said there have been students with mental health issues and depression during the break.
“There are some kids in some really bad situations,” he said. “And we are really all they’ve got a lot of times.”
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